Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In Michel Butor’s travelogue of Americana, evocations of cities and cultural and political history are developed as themes on multiple levels: temporal, spatial, historical, and physical. His efforts to capture the sensation of travel transport readers backward in time, as well as forward in space, as they move from state to state, town to town, and century to century. The first word of the title of the large work, “Mobile,” suggests Alexander Calder’s whimsical mobile sculptures, which, like each state or historical landmark, may be read from a variety of perspectives. Road signs introducing new states and town names are reminders that America is the land of mobility in which people move from place to place in automobiles. Distilled quotations and advertising reveal other significant aspects of American culture. Recurring Howard Johnson’s ice-cream flavors and advertisements from the Sears catalog echo the American mail-order catalog mentality. The names of cities that reappear in different states duplicate America’s pattern of mass production. The use of juxtaposition conveys a feeling of speed as the reader travels down the highway of Americana.

This story also works as a social document of the more disturbing aspects of American history. Butor draws attention to the mistreatment of American Indians at the hands of America’s white inhabitants, whom he calls “Europeans.” The Indian, the “expression of this scandalous continent,” posed a great menace to white colonists as they tried to replace the wilderness and build grids of roads and farmlands. To juxtapose the history of white America with its own cultural shame is, for Butor, to offer a realistic panorama of a country. It is certainly no accident that Butor pairs the name of each city with the name of a corresponding Indian reservation.